Dennis, Sandra Dale (“Sandy”)
Dennis, Sandra Dale (“Sandy”)
(b. 27 April 1937 in Hastings, Nebraska; d. 2 March 1992 in Westport, Connecticut), stage and film actress who earned a string of honors, including an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Dennis was one of two children of Jack Dennis, a salesman and railway clerk, and Yvonne Dennis, a secretary. Her family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, when she was about seven. There she attended public schools, read voraciously, wrote poetry, and both directed and acted in plays. After watching Kim Stanley and Joanne Woodward perform on television in A Young Lady of Property, the fourteen-year-old Dennis decided to become an actress. She appeared in the Lincoln Community Theater’s productions of The Crucible and, later, The Rainmaker, for which she received the best actress award. After graduating from Lincoln High School, Dennis attended Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska, although she never earned a college degree. At age nineteen, Dennis moved to New York City to study acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio.
Waiflike, possessing an elfin face, and exuding girl-next-door innocence, Dennis initially portrayed younger characters on the New York stage. She first appeared as a thirteen-year-old in a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea around 1956. Dennis next played a high school waitress in William Inge’s Bus Stop before landing a role in 1959 in an off-Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s Burning Bright. Although that play closed after thirteen performances, in 1961 she accepted a small part in the Broadway production of Graham Greene’s The Complaisant Lover. One year later, Dennis’s portrayal of a young social worker in the comedy A Thousand Clowns earned her the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best performance in a supporting role. In 1964 she won a second Tony, this time for best nonmusical female performance, playing the jaunty mistress of a married tycoon in Any Wednesday.
By 1964 Dennis was a star on Broadway. She had played opposite such leading men as Sir Michael Redgrave (The Complaisant Lover), Jason Robards, Jr. (A Thousand Clowns), and Gene Hackman (Any Wednesday). The critics sang her praises. A “charmer (with a face like fresh mint),” glowed Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune, following Dennis’s performance in The Complaisant hover. “Let me tell you about xsSandy Dennis,” Kerr quipped, after seeing Any Wednesday. “There should be one in every home.” Emory Lewis of Cue applauded her timing as “far too brilliant in one so young.” In the spring of 1965 Dennis left the cast of Any Wednesday to film Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Dennis’s performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? earned her additional honors and a place in Hollywood history. She costarred alongside Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and George Segal and worked under the first-time director Mike Nichols in a film that explored, through a late-night party, the troubled marriages of two small-town college professors. Dennis portrayed Honey, Segal’s mousy, whimpering wife who becomes intoxicated and at one point performs a jig while chanting, “I dance like the wind.” Although the film’s adult content and racy dialogue offended censors, the studio president Jack L. Warner stood by the work, which became a box-office hit. The performance of Taylor, who received the Academy Award for best actress, eclipsed that of Dennis. Although the New York Times lamented that Nichols was unable to “get more” from both Segal and Dennis, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Dennis the Oscar for best supporting actress of 1966.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was neither Dennis’s first nor last film. She had played a minor part in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961) and followed up her Oscar-winning performance with a starring role in Up the Down Staircase (1967). The latter film, based on the novel by Bel Kaufman, told the story of an idealistic young teacher wrestling with student problems in an inner-city school. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther applauded Dennis’s “vivid performance of emotional range and depth,” and the International Film Festival held in Moscow awarded her its best actress prize. Dennis’s next roles were offbeat. In The Fox (1968), based on a novella by the British writer D. H. Lawrence, she portrayed a lesbian, and in Sweet November (1968), she played a terminally ill woman who changes lovers monthly. The New York Times critic Renata Adler found Dennis’s performance in The Fox“halting” but graded her “very good” in the wistful Sweet November. Dennis won few accolades for her portrayal of a spinster involved with a younger man in That Cold Day in the Park (1969). But her leading role in Thank You All Very Much (1969), a British film about an unwed mother determined to raise her child alone, drew praise.
Dennis was unable to continue her triumphs. The Out-of-Towners (1970), a Neil Simon comedy in which she co-starred with Jack Lemmon, flopped with moviegoers and critics alike. Qualities that had made Dennis seem fresh a decade earlier—sweetness, sincerity, naivete, and feminine fragility—had become stale. The Fox and Thank You All Very Much, in which she departed from her character types, failed to find large audiences. Dennis’s trademark features—protruding teeth, a muttering speech pattern, and a nasal voice—suggested an annoying nervousness. In 1967 a critic for Time worried that “Sandy Dennis is in danger of losing her momentum in mannerisms.” The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael griped that she “has made an acting style of postnasal drip,” an assessment with which Dennis agreed and worked to correct. Dennis landed supporting roles in such films as Nasty Habits (1977), a parody of Watergate set in a convent, Alan Alda’s comedy The Four Seasons (1981), and Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner (1991).
By her own admission, Dennis was a “solitary person.” She married the jazz musician Gerry Mulligan in 1965; they separated in 1976 but never divorced. They had no children. Once described by Richard Burton as “one of the most genuine eccentrics I know,” Dennis enjoyed the outdoors, old movies, books, photography, and, above all, animals. She sought homes for strays and, at one point, kept six dogs and twenty-six cats herself. “You have to keep going,” Dennis said of acting, her life’s passion, “giving the best you’ve got to get something intangible.” She died in 1992 after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She is buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in Nebraska.
Dennis’s outstanding performances will be remembered by film and theater buffs. Her wholesome exterior belied a willingness to portray marginal or out-of-place figures: a mistress, a lesbian, a spinster, a dying woman, an untested teacher, and an unwed mother. Dennis’s career also shows how success gained at a young age can prove difficult to sustain.
Dennis’s autobiography, Sandy Dennis: A Personal Memoir (1997), edited by Louise Ladd and Doug Taylor, is charming, episodic, and brief. An insightful profile of the actress is given by Joanne Stang in “Sweet Success,” New York Times (1 Mar. 1964). For background on Dennis’s role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? consult H. Wayne Schuth, Mike Nichols (1978), and Mel Gussow, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 and 5 March 1992).
Dean J. Kotlowski